December 31, 2022

My Favorite Theatrical Things in 2022

Theater worked hard this year to come back from the pandemic. As part of those efforts, Broadway dropped its requirement that theatergoers show proof of being vaccinated and made mask wearing optional. Smaller off-Broadway theaters dropped the vaccination requirement too, even though many of them kept their masking mandates. 

And there were so many new shows this fall that sometimes two or even three of them opened on the same night as producers rushed to serve up the theatrical equivalent of comfort food: familiar titles (there are currently four Pulitzer Prize-winning plays—Between Riverside and Crazy, Death of a Salesman, The Piano Lesson, Topdog/Underdog—running on Broadway) starry casts (Hugh Jackman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Vanessa Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Daniel Craig, Daniel Radcliffe) and lots of Sondheim.  

Some of those efforts were successful (several of those productions were terrific). But some weren’t (numerous performances, including the opening night of The Collaboration, the final Broadway production to open in 2022, had to be cancelled when cast members tested positive for the virus).  

Even in the before times, it could be hard for me to single out what was the best in a theatrical year and it’s even tougher to do that in these still fragile times. So I’m going to leave the anointing of this year’s best to my critical brethren and sistren (click here to read my pal Jonathan Mandell's annual compendium of their choices). Instead, to paraphrase the great Oscar Hammerstein, here are just a few of my favorite things:

Seeing A Case for the Existence of God: No play moved me more this year than Samuel D. Hunter’s quiet two-hander that opened at Signature Theatre all the way back in May. It started off as an uneasy reunion between two former high-school classmates (one black, gay and college-educated; the other white, straight and working class) but under David Cromer’s sensitive direction it evolved into a more encompassing meditation on both the feelings of alienation that have so divided this country over the past few years and the things we all share in common, managing in the end to offer a ray of hope for better times to come.

Reveling in Michael Potts' performance in The Piano Lesson.  There were plenty of performances I adored this year: Marylouise Burke in Epiphany, K. Todd Freeman in Downstate, Corey Hawkins in Topdog/Underdog, Linda Lavin in You Will Get Sick. But it was Potts who stood out most for me. In the midst of the dazzling constellation of stars—Danielle Brooks, John David Washington and Samuel L. Jackson—that director LaTanya Richardson Jackson assembled for this revival of August Wilson’s drama about the legacy of slavery, Potts stole every scene he was in with a performance that was so natural and so true that it didn't seem as though he was acting at all. 

Discovering Lloyd Suh and Sanaz Toossi: One of the things I most love about going to the theater is finding new voices who allow me to see the world from a fresh perspective. Suh, a winner of this year’s Steinberg Award for mid-career playwrights; and Toossi, who only completed her M.F.A from NYU four years ago, each did that for me twice this year. His plays The Chinese Lady at the Public and The Far Country at the Atlantic looked at parts of the American experience that too often get left out of the history books. While her plays English, also at the Atlantic Theater; and Wish You Were Here at Playwrights Horizons upended conventional stereotypes about Muslims, particularly Muslim women, living in contemporary Iran. All four productions opened my eyes and made me eager to see what these playwrights do next. 

Marveling at John Lee Beatty’s set for Chester Bailey at the Irish Rep.  Sets don’t usually get attention unless they’re big and glitzy in some way. Beatty’s hauntingly beautiful creation was the opposite of that. It was just a unit set that didn't change much at all but with the help of Brian Levitt's exquisite lighting, it elegantly evoked New York’s old Penn Station, a WWII munitions factory and an isolated hospital ward as though it had been designed specifically for each location in Joseph Dougherty’s drama about the power of imagination to insulate us from even life's cruelest tragedies. The Irish Rep has always punched above its weight but this year it was one of the beneficiaries named in Stephen Sondheim’s will and it is clearly putting that money to good use.

The casting of black leading ladies in musicals.  Twenty-one musicals are running on Broadway during this holiday season and 15 of them have women of color starring in leading roles. It’s no surprise that shows like Aladdin, Hadestown, Hamilton, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King and A Strange Loop (its L. Morgan Lee is the first trans woman to get a Tony nomination) have non-white actresses in principal roles but those parts were written that way. 

What got my attention is that this year Emilie Kouatchou became the first black actress to play Christine in Phantom of the Opera and Brittney Johnson became the first black actress to step into Glenda’s shoes full-time in Wicked.  

And they were joined by Denée Benton as Cinderella in Into the Woods, Lorna Courtney as Juliet in & Juliet, Lana Gordon as Velma Kelly in Chicago, Adrianna Hicks as Sugar in Some Like It Hot, Kristolyn Lloyd as John Adams in the gender-flipped revival of 1776 and Solea Pfeiffer as the head groupie Penny Lane in Almost Famous. Plus there’s the rainbow coalition that have made up the cast of  British queens in Six since its very beginning.

Such diverse casting is unprecedented for the Great White Way.  And I can hardly imagine what it would have meant for a young me to have seen leading ladies who looked like me standing center stage and being so adored and so admired when I was coming up. Or what it would have meant for the non-black people sitting in the audience beside me.

And finally, if you’ll permit me, I’m going to add one more thing to this list:

Working on my BroadwayRadio podcast "All the Drama."  For the past year and a half, I’ve been researching and talking to people about the select group of plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize. Putting the episodes together has been both really informative and great fun for me. And I hope that it will be enlightening and enjoyable for you too. You can check it out by clicking here.




December 17, 2022

"The Far Country" Recalls Forgotten History

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust announced this week that it is awarding its $100,000 Mimi Award to two mid-career playwrights: James Ijames and Lloyd Suh. I’m pleased for both of them but I’m particularly delighted for Suh, who has been writing plays for two decades but whose work I only discovered this year (shame on me) but have fallen hard for (better late than never).

Suh’s The Chinese Lady had a six-week run at the Public Theater last spring. His imaginative retelling of the real-life story of the first Chinese woman to come to the U.S. back in 1834—she was put on display and people paid money to gawk at her—was both enlightening and entertaining (click here to read my review of it). 

Now with The Far Country, which is running at the Atlantic Theatre through the end of the year, Suh has turned his gimlet eye on another overlooked part of the Chinese-American experience:          the practice of “paper sons.” It's terrific too.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred most Chinese from entering this country, would-be immigrants got around the ban by pretending to be related to the Chinese who had come here earlier to seek their fortunes during the Gold Rush or to provide labor for the building of the transcontinental railroad and had over the years been granted legal residency. 

The newcomers—the paper sons trying to enter the country under false pretenses—often borrowed hundreds of dollars to pay for these phony relationships and spent years paying off those debts, sending money back home to help the poor relatives they left behind and mourning the loss of their true identities. 

The practice continued until the immigration laws were reformed in the 1960s. A close friend of mine is the son of someone who came into this country that way (click here to listen to his story and some others) and so I was particularly keen to see what Suh would do with the story.

The Far Country opens in 1909 in an interrogation room on Angel Island, the detention center that was a harsher west coast version of Ellis Island where immigrants were screened. The time is three years after the San Francisco earthquake and a laundryman named Gee is trying to convince an immigration official that he’s a citizen whose records were lost during the quake. 

He isn't; they weren't. But he insists he's telling the truth and that he only wants to visit his family in China and bring his oldest son back with him to help build up his laundry business. And Gee knows how to ingratiate himself with the white men in charge by bowing and smiling and pretending that his English is worse than it is. 

Gee gets his papers and when he gets to China, he starts looking for a paper son who will pay him the money and provide the indentured labor his business needs. He finds Moon Gyet, a young man who is the only support for his poor widowed mother.

Moon Gyet’s entry into the country isn’t an easy one. His stay on Angel Island, crammed into cells with others for months on end, and his agonizing efforts to convince officials there that he should be allowed into the country provide the play’s most effective demonstration of what many Chinese people endured to become Chinese-Americans. 

Still, Suh and director Eric Ting are occasionally too pedantic: sometimes stopping the narrative for direct-address history lessons and at others, showcasing video projections that hammer home parallels with the ongoing discrimination against Asian-Americans. 

But they are saved by the importance of the underlying message, the lyricism of Suh’s language and by this production’s all-around excellent cast, particularly Jenn S. Kim, Shannon Tyo (who was also great in The Chinese Lady) and most especially Amy Kim Waschke as Moon Gyet’s mother, who more than anyone else acknowledges the emotional and cultural costs of becoming a paper son in an unwelcoming land.

Despite the open-arms image it likes to claim for itself, America has long had an ambivalent relationship with immigrants dating from the Alien and Sedition Laws passed in 1798 and running right through the way that Governors DeSantis and Abbot are treating asylum seekers today. The final scene of The Far Country is a poignant and important reminder that despite the hardships they may face getting in, immigrants to this country often become its most devoted citizens and the ones who truly make America great.

December 3, 2022

How Broadway's "KPOP" Lost Its Mojo

The world of musical theater is divided right now between the people who saw KPOP before it came to Broadway and those who saw it afterward. I sadly fall into the latter group. 

The original production back in 2017 (the one that gives its attendees bragging rights) was an immersive theater piece, a joint production of Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective that staged its scenes over several floors of the A.R.T./New York Theatres building on West 53rd Street. It was such an instant hit that it sold out before I could get a ticket. 

So as soon as I heard it was coming to Broadway this season, KPOP shot right to the top of the list of shows I most wanted to see. But the production that opened this week at Circle in the Square isn’t the show that it once was. That’s because all the action now has to take place on one stage and to accommodate that, the creative team has reconceived the plot.

The conceit for both versions is supposed to be a peek behind the scenes at the music factories that have made K-pop—a fusion of traditional Korean folk music, contemporary pop, hip-hop, and R&B—so successful that acts like the South Korean boy band BTS and girl group Blackpink now regularly top the U.S. charts.  

The real-life story of South Korea’s decades-long campaign to build up and export its cultural products offers plenty of material for book writer Jason Kim, composer and lyricist Helen Park (the first Asian-American woman to compose a Broadway score) and co-lyricist Max Vernon to work with (click here to read about that history). 

And from everything I’ve heard and read, the 2017 version tried to grapple with some of the industry’s most controversial issues, including the relentless drive to perfect the highly-choreographed routines that have become trademarks of the genre; the continuous threat that performers are interchangeable and can be replaced in those manufactured acts by younger versions of themselves as they age; and the pressure to undergo plastic surgery to make the stars more acceptable to western eyes.

Almost all of that is missing in the current production. Instead, it’s loosely—very loosely—centered around the preparations for one factory’s debut presentation of its major acts in New York. Its boy band members are bickering because a Korean-American has replaced one of the longtime members and seems to be getting more media attention than the others. And the girl group members are worried that anything they say to a filmmaker following the group around will jeopardize their chances to breakout.  

Meanwhile the star is having a meltdown because she doesn’t know if she really wants to pursue international stardom or to settle down with her modest school teacher boyfriend. The role is usually played by the real-life K-pop star Luna but she was out the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show. Her understudy Amy Keum turned in a solid performance but I couldn't help wondering what extra spark Luna, who's also done musicals (she played Elle Woods in the South Korean production of Legally Blonde) might have brought to the part.

All of the young cast members, most of whom are making their Broadway debuts, work hard but their characters' storylines are so thinly drawn that it was hard to connect with any of them. And director Teddy Bergman seems at a loss for how to help them make the narrative more compelling. Instead he leans on his creative team to do the heavy lifting. They do what they can.

Gabriel Hainer Evansohn has designed a flexible set with telescoping platforms that provide music-video-style close-ups of the performers and trap floors that allow them to appear and disappear as needed. The setting is assisted by a kaleidoscope of video projections, including live feeds from the stage that pop up on the TV screens that surround the set. But the most valuable contribution may be Jiyoun Chang’s dynamic lighting scheme which does a better job of storytelling than the actual book does.

And of course Bergman leans heavily on the music. In between the scenes of faux angst, the cast performs numbers that are supposed to be for the fictional show but that actually make up the bulk of the show that audience members at Circle in the Square see.

As in real K-pop, some of the songs are sung in English, others in Korean and a few toggle back and forth between the languages. Most of the numbers, with the exception of the requisite power ballads, are upbeat and bouncy. 

All are energetically choreographed by Jennifer Weber (click here to read more about this up-and-comer) and they feature delightfully gaudy costumes by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi who come up with so many variations on boy-and-girl-band glamour wear that those outfits almost deserve a show of their own.

In the end, your enjoyment of KPOP will probably depend, unsurprisingly, on how you feel about K-pop music. Two elderly white women in our row could hardly wait for the lights to come up at intermission before they made their way for the door. But the young Asian couple sitting next to me could hardly contain their joy, bouncing along and clapping to almost every song.  As for me, I now wish even more that I had seen the 2017 version.

November 26, 2022

Succumbing to the Charms of "& Juliet"


& Juliet, the exuberant new musical that mashes up Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the songbook of the pop hitmaker Max Martin wasn’t made for me. It was made for the tween girls sitting behind my niece Jennifer and me who clearly identified with the show's eponymous heroine and spent the intermission debating the choice they wanted her to make. Their consensus: reject all romantic options and go off on her own.  

The show was also made for the fortysomething-year-old guy sitting next to me who nodded fiercely to the bops and sighed deeply at the power ballads that Martin (click here to read more about him) has written over the past 30 years for the likes of Arianda Grande, Katy Perry and the Backstreet Boys and that no doubt provided the coming-of-age soundtrack for both my seatmate and my niece. Cause Jennifer loved the show too.

But don’t worry if you don’t fall into either Gen X or Gen Z because there’s a good chance that you’ll still have a good time at & Juliet. To my (Boomer) surprise, I did even though I have only a passing knowledge of Martin’s songs and found all kinds of holes in the show’s jerry-rigged plot. 

Written by David West Read, an executive producer of the cult TV comedy series “Schitt’s Creek," (click here to read more about him) & Juliet starts with Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway turning up at the premiere of his tragedy about the star-crossed young lovers and proposing a rewrite in which Juliet not only lives but embarks on a journey of self-discovery, accompanied by her devoted Nurse and—since this is a 21st century gloss on the 16th century—a nonbinary best friend named May.  

They head off to Paris because, well why not. There they encounter a confused young nobleman who woos Juliet in an attempt to prove his manliness to his macho father, who, as it so happens, has a romantic past with the nurse. Complications ensue. All of them underscored—and overscored—by nearly 30 of Martin’s hits.

But this is a jukebox musical that doesn’t take itself too seriously (it even opens with a jukebox sitting onstage) and everyone involved is far more committed to getting as many people as possible leaving the theater with smiles on their faces. 

So the plot’s silliness is intentional. The Shakespeares quibble over who should hold the quill that somehow gives them control over the narrative they're supposedly writing. Anne wants to take it in a feminist direction; Will tries to circle back to the original version. Meanwhile Read throws in winking references to the real Bard that are just knowing enough to make audience members feel smart when they notice them. 

The creative team is onboard too. Costume designer Paloma Young dresses the cast in a stylish mix of Elizabethan and contemporary wear that wouldn’t look out of place at a cool downtown club. Video designer Andrzej Goulding and lighting designer Howard Hudson join forces to create eye-dazzling effects that would do a rock concert proud. And director Luke Sheppard and the show's very busy choreographer Jennifer Weber (click here to read about her) keep the action moving with actors break dancing and tumbling across the stage, dropping from the ceiling and flying into the rafters.

But the highest praise has to go to the fantastic cast, led by Lorna Courtney, a charming triple threat—singing, dancing, girl powering—who's making her Broadway debut as Juliet. And just as appealing are Broadway vets Stark Sands as the Bard, who's trying to wrench his play back from his wife without wrecking their marriage; and Betsy Wolfe feisty and slyly funny as Anne.

In supporting roles, Melanie La Barrie is an inveterate scene stealer as the nurse (it’s also great to see a round, brown woman in a musical who isn’t required to sing a gospel number) and in the role of the noble dad, Paulo Szot (a Tony winner for the 2008 revival of South Pacific) is clearly delighted at being in on all the antics, including the wearing of a huge codpiece.   

Now, this is the spot where I should throw in some pun on one of Martin’s lyrics but I’m not familiar enough with the songs to do that. Instead, I’ll sum up my thoughts about his show with a quote form the latter-day bard Stephen King, “You can’t deny laughter; when it comes, it plops down in your favorite chair and stays as long as it wants.”  For & Juliet, that stay should be a long one.

November 19, 2022

Digging Deep Into Empathy With "Downstate"

Bruce Norris has a knack for making people uncomfortable.  His 2006 play The Pain and the Itch featured a 4-year-old with a genital rash, a metaphor for her family’s dysfunction that called for the young actor playing the part to scratch her crotch constantly which caused some theatergoers to accuse the play of child abuse. His 2010 Pulitzer and Tony winner Clybourne Park took on the issues of race and wokeness in a riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun that so riled some black members of the theatrical community that several wrote plays to refute it (click here to read about one of them). And now comes Downstate, a provocative meditation on remorse, righteous anger and retribution set in a halfway house for sex offenders.

 All three of those plays also contain scenes and exchanges that are laugh-out-loud funny. Which of course only adds to the discomfort of engaging with them. So you can understand why I shifted around uneasily in my seat at Playwrights Horizons where Downstate is currently scheduled to run through Dec. 11. But when I got home, I couldn't stop thinking about the play and the moral quandries it poses.

Downstate opens in the middle of a conversation between an old guy in a motorized wheelchair and a couple in theirs 40s who might be paying an obligatory visit to an older relative in a nursing home, except that a few lines in, the husband Andy calls the old guy “a fundamentally evil person” and describes how he has fantasized about killing him.  

For the old guy, whose name is Fred, is a former piano teacher who sexually abused Andy when he was 12. Fred now lives in a group home with three other offenders: Dee, a former dancer who when he was in 30s carried on a two-year sexual relationship with a teenager during a national tour of Peter Pan; Felix who committed incest with his young daughter and Gio who had sex with an underage girl who he swears told him she was 18.

They’ve all served their sentences but they’re still required to wear ankle bracelets that track where they go. They’re forbidden to have smartphones or any access to the internet. And a probation officer regularly monitors their activities and updates them on changes in their restrictions, including the latest that prohibits trips to a nearby supermarket because neighbors, who sometimes throw things at the house, have complained that the store is too close to a school.

Norris digs into each offender’s story, giving each man a chance to say why he believes he's a victim too. And although he’s a little less generous to Andy and his wife, Norris also allows them to make the case for how being abused can have long-lasting effects on the life of people struggling to survive that abuse and those who love them.

Under the deft direction of Norris’s frequent collaborator Pam MacKinnon, the performances are all superb. But first among equals are Frances Guinan and K. Todd Freeman. 

Guinan astutely nails how Fred both acknowledges responsibility for his crimes and yet desperately invests in the belief that he's really just a genial guy with a minor flaw. Meanwhile, Freeman adds layers of nuance to the role of Dee who insists that he’s done no wrong but knows that absolution will remain out of reach.

There are no easy answers to the questions their situations raise. Should people who have paid their debt to society be allowed to go on with their lives?  Sure. Would I want people who have committed such predatory crimes to live anywhere near me or those I love? Absolutely not.

Those of us who consider ourselves theater people like to talk about empathy. In Downstate Norris challenges us to confront exactly what that takes. “I feel compassion for those who’ve fucked up their lives,” he told Chicago Magazine when the play premiered at Steppenwolf in 2018. “If you want to extend compassion in the world, you have to extend it to everyone, not just to those you think deserve it.”

November 5, 2022

Life and Death Stories In "Everything's Fine," "Walking With Ghosts," "Where the Mountain Meets the Sea," and "My Broken Language"

The writer Joan Didion once said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But lately an increasing number of theater makers have not only been telling the stories of their lives but sharing them onstage. Over just the last three weeks I’ve seen four shows that look back at the lives of the people who created them and this week it was announced that Anthony Rapp, the original Mark in Rent, plans to bring a one-man show based on his 2006 memoir “Without You” to New World Stages in January.

It could be that producers like these shows because they tend to have small casts—sometimes just the one person—minimal scenery and almost no costume changes. But I suspect that the trend also has something to do with the fact that so many of us have gotten used to sharing our lives on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok. As Andy Warhol allegedly predicted, we’re all searching for our 15 minutes of fame. 

The challenge for the theatrical seekers is to make it clear why the rest of us should want to spend time with their stories and what those stories can tell us about our own lives. Here’s how four shows have fared at those tasks:

EVERYTHING'S FINE: Douglas McGrath got a Tony nomination for writing the book for the Carole King musical Beautiful and he earned an Oscar nomination for co-authoring the screenplay for the 1994 backstage comedy "Bullets Over Broadway" so he was no stranger to showbiz stories. Which made it somewhat surprising that his one-man show, which opened last month at the DR2 Theater in Union Square, focused on his Texas boyhood in the early 1970s. 

McGrath and his director John Lithgow (yes, that John Lithgow) allowed their narrative to meander a bit before they zeroed in on the 14-year-old Doug’s experience with a female history teacher in her 40s who became obsessed with him, left him notes, called him at home. The story didn’t go quite where you thought it would and the strained attempts to tie it into McGrath’s feelings about his late father left me wondering why I should care. 

And then, just as I was writing this post, came the news that McGrath, only 64, had suddenly died on Thursday night. In an interview he did last month with my BroadwayRadio colleague Matt Tamanini, (click here to hear it) McGrath said he didn’t want to hold onto the anger and bitterness he’d felt in the past and I’m sorry that it took his passing for me to grasp that message his show was trying to share with me.

WALKING WITH GHOSTS: The Irish actor Gabriel Byrne dips back into his childhood too in this one-man show based on the highly-praised memoir of the same name that he published last year. I haven’t read the book but it’s clear from the play that Byrne is an excellent writer, with a keen eye for detail and a poet’s ear for language. And yet, the transfer from the page to the stage isn’t a smooth one. 

For starters, the show’s running time of two-and-a-half hours is far too long. Directed by Byrne’s friend Lonny Price (yes, that Lonny Price) it unspools in a series of vignettes (happy trips with his grandmother to the movies, a tragic encounter with a pedophile priest) that probably worked in the book when you had time to stop and ponder how those people, or ghosts, from his past helped to make Byrne the man—and the artist—he is today. But there simply isn’t enough time to absorb those life lessons as they tumble out one after another onstage, despite the blackouts that mark the end of each short tale. 

To be sure, there are some pleasures: Byrne’s discovery of the amateur theater group that began his career is a delight and his account of an Bacchanalian evening spent with Richard Burton is the kind of peek behind the celebrity curtain that I wish he had shared more. 

Still, Byrne is good company (click here to watch an interview with him) and your enjoyment of his show, which is running at Broadway’s Music Box theater through Dec. 31, will probably depend on whether you feel that just seeing him in the flesh and hearing the lovely Irish lilt of his voice justify the cost of the ticket.

WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE SEA: I may be stretching here since I don’t know for sure that this musical about a father and son now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Center Stage space through Nov. 27, is autobiographical. But playwright Jeff Augustin’s book sure plays as though it is. Like Augustin’s dad, the father in the play immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti and like Augustin the son grew up to be a gay man. 

The story is told in alternating monologues by the father who takes a trip west with his wife while she’s pregnant with their first child; and by their now-grown son who years later is traveling east to collect the ashes of his recently deceased father. The actors—Billy Eugene Jones and Chris Myers—who portray them are excellent. But they don’t sing all that much. Instead, the husband-and-wife duo The Bengsons perform the score that they wrote on onstage.

I’ve enjoyed the Bengsons’ folksy, gospel-tinged music in Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones, the semi-autobiographical shows based on their lives, but the couple seems out of place here. This is a story about two black men struggling to connect with one another and so I don’t get why two white people are singing about them. 

And while the songs are lovely, they don’t advance the plot and there’s a sameness to them that eventually wears out whatever welcome they did have. Still, anyone who has yearned for a closer relationship with a father or a son may find themselves tearing up at the end.

MY BROKEN LANGUAGE: This adaptation of the memoir that playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes published last year doesn’t open at Signature Theatre until next week and I don’t want to jump the review embargo but the show fits so perfectly into this theme that I can’t resist mentioning it. Both the book and the play center around the women—her grandmother, her aunts, her cousins, her baby sister and especially her mother—in the extended Puerto Rican family that dominated Hudes’ childhood growing up in Philadelphia in the ‘80s and ‘90s 

Some of her family members fell victim to the AIDS and drugs that plagued their neighborhood back then but Hudes would win a scholarship to Yale and later study playwriting under Paula Vogel at Brown University. She then wrote the book for the Tony-winning musical In the Heights and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her play Water By The Spoonful, the second in a trilogy inspired by the life of a male cousin who suffered with PTSD after serving in Iraq. 

However in 2018, after lukewarm receptions to two plays she did at the Public Theater, Hudes announced that U.S. theater’s slowness to embrace diversity had sapped her interest in continuing to write for it (read more about that here). But the chance to put the stories of her female relatives onstage has obviously wooed her back. 

That storytelling, which mixes monologues, song, dance and Santeria rituals, may remind some theatergoers of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The actors in the five-person cast, which includes Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in Rent, trade off roles and each of them gets a turn to play the playwright at various times in her life. Hudes is directing the show herself so what audiences see will be the way she wants to tell the story of her life.



October 25, 2022

In Memoriam: Seymour "Red" Press

My friend Seymour "Red" Press died yesterday. Although to call him a friend doesn’t really describe what he meant to my husband K and me. Red was a longtime musical contractor and K, a trumpet player, met him when Red hired him to play in the orchestra for Sophisticated Ladies. But over the next 40 years, the relationship between them deepened into a kind of loving father-son bond such that whenever we made plans to see Red and his much beloved wife Nona, I told people that I was going to spend time with my in-laws.  

We shared many dinners, sometimes in our homes but more often at a favorite French bistro or Italian restaurant where they knew us and let us linger. We talked about theater of course but also about books, places we'd traveled to or wanted to see, what was going on with our families and politics. Red had fought to strengthen the musicians' union in the 1960s and he was committed to diversity decades before that became trendy, going out of his way to hire black and brown musicians. I adored him.

But K and I weren’t the only ones who loved Red. Almost everybody in the business did. That was evident eight years ago when so many theater folks (actors, directors, composers, conductors, producers, house managers, dancers, musicians and more) crammed into the upstairs room at the Glass House Tavern to surprise him for his 90th birthday. If someone had wanted to they could have put on a full Tony-caliber production just with the people who had gathered in that room to celebrate him.

A woodwind player, Red started out playing the saxophone in big bands, including those lead by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. But in 1957, he got a job playing in the orchestra for the Broadway musical The Body Beautiful. It ran just 60 performances but he made it back to Broadway a year later playing for the original production of Gypsy. And by the 1970s, he began his career as a contractor, hiring the musicians to play in the pit. 

He worked on over 90 Broadway productions. He also helped to create the New York City Center Encores! program, where he worked on another 75 productions. In 2007, he received a Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre (click here to hear him talk about his career). 

Red never stopped loving theater or working at it. Although he turned 98 last February, he has three new productions in the current 2022-2023 season: Into the Woods, Almost Famous and KPOP. 

But shortly after Nona's death last year, Red decided to move into an assisted living facility to be near his daughter Gwynn and her family. She told K that yesterday morning Red told the workers there that he wanted to go to Broadway. So they put on show tunes and he passed while listening to the music he loved and dedicated his life to sharing with the rest of us. 

I'm going to miss him.  A lot.

October 15, 2022

A Nay for "Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge"

As a recent story in the online magazine TDF Stages noted, James Baldwin is having a theatrical moment (click here to read more about it). The black writer and intellectual, who died in 1987 at just 63, has appeared as a character in three quasi-documentary plays this year. 

Last spring at the Vineyard Theatre, the theater collective The Commissary re-created the TV interview between the poet Nikki Giovanni and Baldwin in Lessons in Survival: 1971. The theater company the american vicarious is currently touring venues throughout New York City's five boroughs with Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley, a recreation of the 1965 encounter that took place when the Cambridge Union invited Baldwin and the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. to argue the question of whether the American Dream had been achieved at the expense of the American Negro.

Meanwhile, Elevator Repair Service is offering Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge, its version of that Cambridge debate, at the Public Theater through next weekend. That’s the one I caught, tempted by ERS’s reputation for taking famous texts and dramatizing them word-for-word even though I haven’t been as taken with their previous shows as others have been.   

I wish I could say this production had changed my mind about ERS. But although the Cambridge students voted 544 yeas to 164 nays in favor of Baldwin, I'm going to have to vote nay for this barely dramatized and minimally staged version of his debate. At least, unlike ERS's eight-and-a-half hour reading of “The Great Gatsby” (click here to read my review of that), this show lasted just a little more than an hour. Even so, I found that my mind wandered.

The show starts, as the real debate did, with two Cambridge students speaking on either side of the question. Both students were white and so it’s somewhat baffling why director John Collins cast the black actor Christopher-Rashee Stevenson to play the student arguing that the American Dream did not exclude African Americans during their first 350 years in this country when they were subjected to the horrors of slavery, the failures of Reconstruction and the oppression of Jim Crow segregation.

But the production's main problem is that it’s hard to replicate Baldwin’s singular charisma. Greig Sargeant, who conceived the project for ERS, is dark-skinned and small in stature just as Baldwin was but, alas, the similarities end there. It might not be necessary to emulate the distinctive and slightly posh way that Baldwin spoke but anyone playing him needs to be able to radiate both the brilliance and the anger that fueled his words. 

Sargeant clearly cares deeply about this project (click here to hear him talk about it) but there’s a whiny quality about his performance that undercuts the passion of Baldwin's still relevant message.

Ben Jalosa Williams doesn't imitate Buckley’s upper-class drawl either. But nor does he capture the disdain that Buckley often exhibited when he believed he was dealing with intellectual inferiors and that he used in his Cambridge speech as he urged African Americans to just work harder if they wanted to do better. So the portrayal comes off as rather bland. 

The audience is supposed to fill in for the Cambridge students but, polite theatergoers, we were also a poor substitute for the cheering and braying familiar to anyone who has watched episodes of the British Parliament’s raucous Question Time. 

Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge tries to save itself with a coda that imagines a scene between Baldwin and his good friend the playwright Lorraine Hansberry but it's too little and too late.

The one good thing I can say about Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge is that it prompted me to watch the real 1965 debate on YouTube (click here to see it). The words, of course, were the same but this time the effect was riveting. It was so good, I watched the entire thing and my mind didn’t wander once.

October 6, 2022

The New "1776" Isn't Revolutionary Enough

Revivals used to be fairly simple. A producer would take a beloved title or maybe even an underappreciated one, cast it with a star or two and voilà, a show. But that’s not how it goes nowadays. Instead of theatergoers greeting revivals with “It’s so great to see you again,” they’re now asking, “Why are you here?” “What do you have to say about the way we live now?”

So that’s how we get a Company with a female Bobbie.  Or A Death of a Salesman with a black Loman family.  Or a 1776 with female, non-binary and trans actors portraying the Founding Fathers. Sometimes these new interpretations work. Sometimes they don’t. And I’m sorry to have to say that for me, the production of 1776 that opened this week at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre doesn’t.

The story of the contentious days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and the shameful compromise that was made to get the job done was always a tough challenge for a musical. It’s basically just a bunch of white guys in breeches, waistcoats and perukes yelling at one another. The entire score consists of just 12 songs, with one reprise.

But somehow composer Sherman Edwards and book writer Peter Stone managed to turn all of that into an entertaining—and surprisingly suspenseful—musical that beat out Hair for the Tony in 1969 and ran for 1,217 performances. 

The show has been one of my favorites since I saw the original production from a seat high in the balcony during a spring break from college. And every Fourth of July, I try to watch at least some of the 1972 movie version, which was filmed with almost the entire original Broadway cast, including the invaluable William Daniels balancing just the right mix of sweet and sour as the right-minded but irascible John Adams.

The new 1776 does start off promisingly. All the members of the ensemble—diverse in terms of age, color, ethnicity, gender identity and size—walk onstage wearing various forms of streetwear and then they put on frock coats, take off their footwear, pull up the kind of white knee-length stockings men wore in the 18th century and step into the buckled shoes that have been waiting along the rim of the stage: a clever and clear statement that they are now stepping into the roles of the men who founded this country. 

Alas, the show goes down from there. And that’s mainly because it’s a concept without a cause, failing to make the argument for why those actors are stepping into those shoes. When Hamilton cast black and brown actors as the Founding Fathers, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail made the case that this country also belongs to the people who had been previously disenfranchised by it. 

But Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, who co-directed this revival of 1776, just have their actors go through the motions of the musical. Their revival was conceived before the coronavirus pandemic but they’ve recently said that they want it to reflect the racial reckoning set off by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 (click here to read one of those interviews).  

That retrofitting has produced a few on-the-nose gestures: the new character of Jefferson’s body slave has been added but given no lines except for an ironic but-not-me head shake when Jefferson talks about all men being created equal; a dance mimics enslaved Africans in chains during “Molasses to Rum,” without bringing any new insights into that song about the slave trade that has always been part of the musical.  

The sense of suspense about whether the quarreling delegates will ever reach an agreement that usually animates the play is also lost. Hell, even the calendar that has traditionally hung on the wall, counting down the days to July 4, is missing here. It’s been replaced by intermittent video projections of dates but they’re too easily forgotten. 

More damaging is the fact that with a few exceptions (Shawna Hamic appropriately hamming it up as South Carolina’s vain delegate Richard Henry Lee, Patrena Murray’s droll take on Benjamin Franklin) the actors don’t do enough with the characters. Crystal Lucas-Perry, who will be leaving the production at the end of the month to join the upcoming Ain't No' Mo," gives too much honey and too little vinegar to her portrayal of John Adams. 

When you add it all up, the enterprise carries the whiff of a middling community theater production. Even Scott Pask’s bare-bones set looks less like a concept than something that was done on a tight budget. And the video projections toward the end of the second act come off as a Hail Mary pass for relevancy.

So a production that should offer smart commentary instead just seems gimmicky. It’s great to see so many female-identifying actors on a stage but 1776 was composed primarily for men’s voices (there are only two female roles—Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams—in the piece). And the revival stumbles here too. 

There are few more rousing opening numbers than “Sit Down, John,” in which his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress admonish Adams, the pre-eminent but annoying advocate for separation from the British, to stop heckling them. I had hoped that this production would imbue that number with the passionate roar of the pussyhat-wearing participants in the 2017 Women's March. Instead, the song sounded like a track from the 1970s bubblegum band Josie and the Pussycats. 

All of which left me wondering, Why is this show here?

September 24, 2022

Alan Cumming Follows His Passion in "Burn"

The very limited six-day run of Burn, Alan Cumming’s solo performance piece at The Joyce Theater, ends this weekend but there is so much joy in it that I can't resist celebrating it. 

Cumming, who broke out as the emcee in the 1998 revival of Cabaret, has gone on to make a good living doing movies (“Spy Kids,”  “X-Men”) and TV shows (“The Good Wife,” “Instinct”) but he has remained at heart a true artist who is always looking for new ways to express himself.

In 2008, Cumming opened that year’s Lincoln Center summer festival in an exuberant production of the seldom-performed The Bacchae that had him making his entrance by descending, upside-down, from the ceiling. Five years later he turned in an intense performance in a one-man version of Macbeth in which he played all the parts. He’s also written three memoirs and a children’s book, is a co-producer of A Strange Loop and the host of “Club Cumming,” a showcase for queer comedians that is currently streaming on Showtime (click here to check that out).

Now Burn is at the Joyce, the Chelsea venue for dance, because Cumming teamed up with the choreographer Steven Hoggett to create a movement-and-word tribute to the 18th century poet Robert Burns, revered as the national bard of their native Scotland. 

After working on it for nearly seven years, the duo took the piece to the Edinburgh International Festival in August (click here to read about their journey). When word came that they were also bringing it here to New York, my always-up-for-anything theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets to see it.

To be honest, the show is far from perfect. For starters, Cumming is not a trained dancer and, at 57, he often gets winded as he executes the movements that Hoggett and his co-choreographer Vicki Manderson have created for him to perform. The words he speaks are drawn from some of Burns’ poems but more so from the letters that Burns wrote and that reveal more about the man inside the icon. But, alas, some of those words were occasionally drowned out by Anna Meredith’s score, a crazy-quilt fusion of Scottish folk tunes and techno beats.

However in the end, none of that really mattered. Burns, the author of the New Year’s Eve classic “Auld Lang Syne,” is a compelling subject. The son of a poor tenant farmer, he was largely home schooled and spent most of his early years laboring on the farm although he never developed a knack for it and would struggle with making a living until he died at the age of 37. 

Burns began writing mainly as a way to woo girls and he remained lusty throughout his life, siring 12 children, three out of wedlock and the last born on the day of his funeral. But his poems, an innovative mix of Scottish and English wordplay, eventually branched out to deal with such subjects as class inequality, the role of the church in society, the poet's own intermittent bouts of depression and his always abiding love for his homeland. 

Cumming and Hoggett are proud Scotsmen too and both have worked often with the National Theater of Scotland, where they incubated this piece. As always, Hoggett, who has devised distinctive movement for such shows as Once, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, found surprisingly playful and inventive ways to tell Burns' story. 

There were bits of stage magic—a quill pen that writes by itself—and other memorable images: the women in Burns’ life were represented by shoes that dangled from the ceiling on ribbons. Terrific videos by Andrzej Goulding and effective lighting by Tim Lutkin recreated the Scottish landscape and the peaks and valleys inside Burns’ mind. 

And, of course, Cumming was as passionate and committed as ever. He never left the stage during the 60-minute performance and his obvious delight in what he was doing kept the audience right in the palm of his hand. 

As Bill and I stood outside the theater after the show, he said how glad he was to have seen it. Me too.

September 3, 2022

A Labor Day Salute to Stage Managers

Monday is Labor Day, which means that it’s time for my annual tribute to some of the people whose labor makes the theater we all love work. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am that I’m just getting around to celebrating stage managers, who may be the hardest working people in the business.

Stage managers are the linchpins that connect the creative and technical sides of every production. They make sure that actors don’t forget their cues and that props are where they should be onstage. They run tech rehearsals so that the lighting and sound folks can work out their plans and replacement rehearsals so that newcomers to a production can figure out what they’re supposed to do. They provide a shoulder for everyone from the director to the dressers to cry on. And they gamely—and graciously—shoulder the blame when things go wrong, even when it isn’t their fault (click here to read some specific stories about what they do).

I got some further insight into what it takes to be a good stage manager by reading “Whenever You’re Ready: Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager.” When Polley first started out in the early 1970s as an assistant stage manager at the Ontario-based festival, an old-timer told her “If anybody notices you are doing your job, it’s because you’ve just made a mistake…good stage management is invisible.” 

Over the next four decades, Polley would take that to heart, quietly dealing with everything from doling out breath mints to actors about to engage in an onstage kiss to administering first aid when an actor collapsed in the middle of a scene. And, like her brother and sister stage managers at theaters large and small, doing it all without the glory that comes from being onstage, content to settle for the occasional compliment of “Good show.”

Polley had retired by the time Covid created the unprecedented crisis of closed theaters all over the world. But Richard Hester, a Broadway stage manager who has worked on such shows as Titanic, Sweet Smell of Success and Jersey Boys, swung into action and, in typical stage manager style, kept up the morale of his colleagues in the community with a series of blog posts about how he and they were making it through the pandemic. He’s collected those tales about that darkest time between March 2020 and April 2021 in his new book “Hold, Please: Stage Managing A Pandemic.”

Another thing to come out of the pandemic was the call for greater diversity and inclusion backstage as well as onstage. There have been stage managers of color in the past. My college schoolmate, the great Fémi Sarah Heggie, got her start with the Negro Ensemble Company and was one of the first African-American women to get an Equity card as a stage manager. 

Over the years, Fémi has worked on such Broadway shows as Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death, Jelly’s Last Jam and Once on This Island.  And there have been others, including Lisa Dawn Cave, who has some 20 Broadway credits over the past two decades, including the original production of Caroline, or Change and Shuffle Along. 

But a study conducted by Actors' Equity Association (which represents stage managers as well as actors) revealed that between 2016 and 2019, fewer than 3% percent of the stage managers working on professional productions in the entire country were black (click here to read more about that). And when African Americans do get hired, they tend to get hired primarily for shows by black playwrights or those with largely black casts.

Lately, there have been some more hopeful signs of change.  Both the La Jolla Playhouse in California and the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta have started programs that provide BIPOC fellows with salaries, benefits and the opportunity to work on major (and hopefully not just black) professional productions. 

There’s obviously still a long way to go.  But as we move along, I hope we’ll all take the time to recognize and appreciate the vital work that all stage managers do. In the meantime, I hope they’ll accept this belated salute and my most sincere wishes that they—and you, dear readers—have a Happy Labor Day.

August 13, 2022

"The Butcher Boy" and "On that Day in Amsterdam" May Have Arrived Too Soon

Everyone who loves serious theater loves the idea of giving talented new writers a chance to show what they can do. The question is the timing. Too many workshops (and the notes that come along with them) can leach a show and its creator of the originality that made them special in the first place. But a premature production doesn’t do them any favors either. At least those are the thoughts that popped into my head as I sat through two recent shows by newcomers that have been given full-fledged productions that unfortunately reveal the shortcomings of each.

The first was The Butcher Boy, Asher Muldoon’s musical adaptation of the Irish writer Patrick McCabe’s novel that is now playing at the Irish Rep through Sept. 11. Muldoon, who is about to begin his senior year at Princeton, ambitiosly wrote the book, music and lyrics. But he may have bitten off more than he could chew.

To be fair, McCabe’s unsettling novel would be a mouthful for anyone. Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of a troubled boy named Francie Brady. Francie’s father is an alcoholic. His mother is suicidal. Physical abuse in the home is routine. Francie copes by bullying other kids, committing petty crimes and pretending that his life is fine. 

But when a schoolmate’s mother accuses him and his family of behaving like pigs, Francie spirals into a psychotic state in which he is haunted by the images of people with pig-like faces who prod him to do increasingly horrific things. 

Muldoon takes a literal approach to the tale. In his version, Francie, who frequently breaks the fourth wall to narrate what’s going on, is the only character who is anywhere near fully-realized. The others in the small working-class Irish town where he lives are barely sketched in at all so their actions make little sense. 

And there’s no attempt to provide a reason for telling Francie’s story by connecting it to anything larger than itself. Which leaves us in the audience just waiting for one horrible thing to happen after another. And plenty of them do happen.

The score is a genial but undistinguished mix of Irish folk music, British music hall tunes and generic pop. The lyrics may have been more distinctive but the sound design was so poor that I could barely make them out. The elderly couple behind me cranked their listening devices so high that the audio feedback crackled around us and they still complained at intermission that they couldn’t hear what was being sung either.

According to interviews he’s given, Muldoon was working a front-of-the-house job at the Irish Rep when he showed its artistic director Charlotte Moore and producing director Ciarán O’Reilly his script and they decided to do his show (click here to hear more about that). And under O’Reilly’s direction, the Rep has gone all out with the staging for The Butcher Boy. 

The handsome set is dominated by a giant TV screen on which projected images from the 1960s ranging from Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk at the U.N. to Rod Serling introducing episodes of “The Twilight Zone” help set the jittery mood of that era. Meanwhile, the 12-member cast, led by the hardworking Nicholas Barasch as Francie, does the best it can, despite their singing sometimes wandering off-key.

The result is a show that might have been the hit of a college musical writing course or even of a Fringe festival but that instead now comes off as somewhat jejune. 

Clarence Coo, the author of On That Day in Amsterdam, which opened this week in a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters, is older than Muldoon and his play has taken a more traditional route having been workshopped at such theatrical incubators as the Sundance Institute and New York Stage and Film, but the show is still his world premiere as a professional playwright and it too bears the marks of a fledgling pushed out of the nest too soon.

The play has been promoted as the romantic story of two young men who hook up and then spend the following day wandering around the titular city even though each is scheduled to leave town that night. But On That Day in Amsterdam wants to be more than that. One of the men, Sammy, is a refugee who has fled his Middle Eastern homeland and is about to end what has already been an arduous journey by being smuggled into London. The other, Kevin, is an American college kid traveling through Europe on his mother’s purloined credit card. 

Coo clearly wants to compare the restrictions and privileges their backgrounds place on each man but he undercuts that with meditations on art, detours into the lives of Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Anne Frank and a travelogue of the city; just about every museum there gets name checked.

It’s difficult to dramatize all of that in 90 minutes and so Coo falls back on having his characters narrate the story instead of performing it. Director Zi Alikhan, who describes himself  as “a queer, first-generation South Asian-American, culturally Muslim theater Director” would seem to be the perfect person to stage this show. But instead of drawing me into the narrative, many of Alikhan's decisions pushed me out of it.  

The story is framed as a book that Kevin is trying to write about his brief time with Sammy and so I’m guessing that placing most of the action behind a scrim is supposed to suggest the gauziness of his memory but instead it just creates a barrier between the players and the audience. 

Similarly projecting close-ups of the actors’ faces on the scrim doesn't create an intimacy with them but is as off-putting as when Ivo van Hove did the same thing in his revival of West Side Story.  

Neither Muldoon nor especially Coo, who has won such prestigious honors as the Whiting Award for emerging writers and the Yale Drama Series Prize, is untalented. So I’m hoping they’ll continue to develop their talent and that when the time is right, someone will give them another chance to show what they can truly do.  

August 6, 2022

This Post-Modern "Oresteia" is No Classic

Greek tragedies don’t get done a lot. Which is why I really try to see them when I can. So my theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets for the new production of the Oresteia that is playing at the Park Avenue Armory as soon as they went online. But what we ended up seeing was what Bill aptly labeled "an Oresteia”  For this version of the three-part tragedy that Aeschylus wrote in the 5th century B.C. has been rewritten and directed with self-congratulatory postmodern flair by the British wunderkind Robert Icke. It’s playing in rep with the Icke-directed Hamlet through Aug. 13 (click here to read more about that).

The original Oresteia, the only surviving trilogy from the Golden Age of classical Greek drama, chronicled the saga of the death of the warrior-king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife Klytemnestra, her murder by their children and the trial of their son Orestes. But in this production, first seen at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2015, Icke gets rid of the traditional chorus and instead re-enacts onstage its usual telling of the ritualistic child killing of the couple’s daughter Iphigenia, which is what first gets the cycle of revenge rolling.

The three-and-a-half hour production is performed in modern dress and with contemporary language in a blatant bid to make the plays more accessible to today’s audiences. I don't need actors to wear the togas and the masks that have traditionally been used for productions of Greek plays but I have to say that for me at least, Icke's updating robs the narrative of the mythic grandeur that has sustained it for nearly 2500 years. 

Although a soothsayer begins the evening by reciting the names of dieties from a wide spectrum of religions, the gods are missing in Icke's version of the story. So it makes no sense—two millennium spoiler alert—that Agamemnon would sacrifice his daughter to win favor in the war that he is preparing to wage. 

And while I don’t mind having Klytemnestra drop the f-word, I also wanted her and the others to speak some elevated language that would lift their monologues from the everyday dinner conversations that are repeated throughout the performance.

To be fair, there are moments that work. I sat up in my seat when Angus Wright’s Agamemnon and Anastasia Hille’s Klytemnestra went toe-to-toe in the argument over the fate of their daughter. 

Both actors are tall and lean and radiate the tightly-coiled energy of panthers. Wright also has the dulcet voice and calibrated diction in which so many of the best British actors root their power and Hille unleashes the kind of raw passion that would do an old-style Method actor proud.  “This is my child – part of my body,” she yowls in anguish. Their clash is wrenching. 

A coup de théâtre that marks the aftermath of Iphigenia’s death is equally impressive.  But all of that happens in the first act and the following three fail to keep the momentum going.  

Icke frames the entire production as a series of therapy sessions in which Orestes recounts what happened, wrestles with being the sole survivor of his troubled family and prepares to go on trial for the murder of his mother. Bits of evidence are flashed onto to video screens above the stage but theatergoers who’ve forgotten the stories from their grade school readings of Edith Hamilton’s “Tales of Gods and Heroes” may be confused by what's going on.  

Some double-casting and the post-death appearances of several characters only add to the murkiness. So here’s another spoiler, albeit I hope a helpful one: Wright plays the ghost of Agamemnon, his wife’s lover Aegisthus and a trial court judge in the final act.

In those final scenes, Icke tacks on some observations about feminism and politics but they might have worked better if they’d been braided into the entire narrative. 

Throughout the performance, a digital display appears to mark the exact time of death of each victim. This clock is also used to countdown the time during each intermission. And when my mind wandered as it occasionally did, I used it to calculate how much time remained before the show would finally end. 

July 16, 2022

"Between the Lines" Tells a Familiar Story

So many musicals nowadays are based on movies or other pop culture IP (by which I mean jukebox musicals of one kind or another) that it’s nicely retro to have one based on a book. That’s the case with Between the Lines, the new musical that opened this week at the Tony Kiser Theater. It's based on the eponymous YA novel that the bestselling author Jodi Picoult co-wrote in 2012 with her then-teenage daughter Samantha van Leer (click here to watch an interview about that with Picoult).

The original idea was van Leer’s. What, she asked her mom, might happen if characters acted one way when someone was reading the narrative in which they appeared but took on completely different personalities than the ones that had been written for them once the book was closed?  

The answer they came up with was a clever story about a prince in a picture-book fairytale named Oliver. In his closed-book moments Oliver has grown tired of slaying dragons and saving princesses. In fact, he so desperately yearns to enter the real world that he magically makes contact with a sympathetic reader named Delilah. 

She’s a teen who knows that she’s too old for picture books but has found refuge in the guaranteed happy endings in Oliver's fairytale after her parents' divorce has caused her and her mother to move to a new town where her mom cleans homes and her new schoolmates treat Delilah as an outcast. 

It's not the kind of book I usually read but I confess that I was charmed by the story, particularly by the amusing alter-egos Picoult and van Leer created for the fairytale’s other characters who, in their closed-book time, have made peace with the narrative that Oliver is trying to escape: the evil villain Rapskullio is actually a sensitive artist and lepidopterist, or butterfly lover; the regal Queen Maureen is a homey earth mother who likes to bake cookies and the man-crazy mermaids are proud feminists.

I’d looked forward to seeing all of them and their cohorts onstage as Delilah and Oliver fell in love and attempted to find ways to break the barrier between their real and fairytale worlds. And I was further heartened by the fact that the score was by a rare all-female team, the newcomers Elyssa Samsel and Katie Anderson.  

The presence of Daryl Roth as the show’s lead producer also promised a first-rate production. And under Jeff Calhoun’s sure-handed direction, the show delivers one with a talented cast led by the sweet-voiced Arielle Jacobs as Delilah and the pitch-perfect (in both voice and looks) Jake David Smith as Oliver. 

And they get invaluable support from, among others, the veterans Vicki Lewis and Julia Murney and a particularly appealing Will Burton, whose comic and dancing skills are equally endearing. There are also spot-on costumes by Gregg Barnes, an amusing and surprisingly malleable set by Tobin Ost and terrific video projections by Catie Hevner.

So I’m not sure why I was so disappointed by this staged version of Between the Lines.  Maybe it’s because book writer Timothy Allen McDonald, who has a background in adapting children’s books and Broadway shows for the youth editions that school productions use, has put so much effort into checking all of the boxes that he and his colleagues think will appeal to the young demographic they’re so eager to woo. 

Whatever the reason, the result turns out to be a patchwork quilt composed of what appear to be scraps from other shows. The conflict between Delilah and her mom has been amped up so that Murney can sing a Dear Evan Hansen-style power ballad about the difficulties of being a single mom.

Delilah’s only friend at school Jules is now nonbinary, nicely played by the nonbinary actor Wren Rivera but still echoing a similar character in Jagged Little Pill. And Delilah’s nemesis at school Allie McAndrews (played by the understudy Aubrey Matalon at the performance I attended) is a separated-at-birth twin of Regina George, the Queen Bee in Mean Girls

What’s more, the entire ensemble is required to play roles in both Delilah’s real-world and Oliver’s fantasy one, a callback to the 1939 “Wizard of Oz" in which the actors playing the workers on Dorothy’s farm in Kansas also doubled as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in Oz; that may have worked in that classic movie but it undercuts the narrative here. Meanwhile the backstories of the fantasy characters that won me over when I first read “Behind the Lines” get short shrift here. 

Still, almost every performer is given a solo, some of them unnecessary (do we really need the school librarian's paean to Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy?) and they simply add to the show’s 2 hours and 15 min. running time. 

Most of the melodies are catchy and many of the lyrics are smart (click here for a Spotify playlist of some of the songs) but the score doesn’t manage to distinguish itself from the legions of others that now mix show tunes, hip-hop and power ballads.

Of course despite my fondness for Picoult and van Leer's book, I’m not the target demographic their musical is aiming to please. And I imagine some tweens might really enjoy this show. Even so, I miss the enchantment I discovered in the pages of “Between the Lines” and it's made me a little grumpy that I didn't find a similar magic onstage in Between the Lines.

July 9, 2022

Women and Politics in "POTUS" and "53% Of"

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. At least that’s the approach two recent plays have taken with the current political morass in which we all find ourselves.  Selina Fillinger’s farce POTUS (that’s the acronym for President of the United States) is currently scheduled to play at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre through Aug. 14. Steph Del Rosso’s awkwardly named satire 53% Of (its title refers to the percentage of white women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016) ends a brief two-week run at Second Stage’s uptown space the McGinn/Cazale Theater this weekend. 

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but both boast all-female casts and nearly all-female creative teams. Heck, POTUS’s subtitle is “Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” and its starry cast is led by Julie White and Rachel Dratch, both of whom were nominated for Tonys for playing the beleaguered chief of staff to the unseen president and his bewildered personal secretary. The young actresses in 53% Of aren’t yet as well-known, but they gamely play multiple parts, including the male roles, in their production. 

Both shows, written by twentysomething playwrights who clearly lean toward the left end of the political spectrum, made me chuckle but I wasn’t totally comfortable with the underlying message that either was trying to get across. The women in POTUS—be they the reporter who covers him, the press secretary who covers for him, the mistress who, ah, services him or the First Lady who puts up with him—all enable the man-child in the Oval Office. 

They may take time out to strike power poses or to give one another you-go-girl pep talks but they all miserably fail the feminist Bechdel test because although there are a whole bunch of women in the play, including the president’s lesbian sister, all they do is talk to one another about a man. And all of their efforts are directed at smoothing over his gaffs (it’s a Republican administration) and keeping their guy in office. 

I know. I know. It’s just a farce. And Susan Stroman’s jaunty direction and Beowulf Boritt’s turntable set keep the antics moving, complete with the requisite slamming doors. Plus at the curtain call there’s a crowd-pleasing dance and sing-along set to a Joan Jett anthem. Hillary Clinton even went to see the show this past week (click here to read about that) and she had a great time.

But in the end, I came away from the show feeling that Fellinger (click here to read more about her) left the blame for the political mess on the shoulders of the women and I couldn’t shake the additional feeling that when the music ended, the characters would end up right back where we found them, holding up some male doofus instead of doing their own thing.  

I had hoped that 53% Of was going to give me some insights into why women behave that way. The play opens shortly after the 2016 election at a meeting of white suburban Trump supporters who are congratulating themselves on their man’s win but who become uncomfortable when a newcomer, attracted by their social media postings, arrives proudly wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag. 

Alas, the play’s title is a misnomer and instead of digging into the dynamics of how the suburbanites reconcile their support for Trump with their unease for what he stands for, the play hopscotches to other settings: a bro-style gathering of the husbands of the women in the first scene, a get-together of self-consciously progressive young white women in an urban setting and finally a meeting at a bar between one of those white progressives and a black friend.  

The cast worked hard as they moved from one scene to the next and Lux Haac’s costumes helped a little but director Tiffany Nichole Greene couldn’t figure out how to make all of the quick changes work. So I was confused by the third scene, uncertain if its young women were the rebellious daughters of the women and men in the first two scenes or completely unrelated characters. 

The result was a series of SNL-type sketches that not only lacked depth but flicked at the idea that there’s little difference between the white women who voted for Trump and those who didn’t.  Which I don’t believe is true and didn’t find funny at all.